The Yankees offense can't get much hotter than it is right now.
Nick Swisher, Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera hit consecutive homers in the second inning, Phil Hughes allowed three runs in five innings while striking out a career-high nine, and the Yankees defeated the Orioles 11-4 at Yankee Stadium Wednesday for their eighth straight win.
During this streak, the Yankees have not only found their home-run stroke, they have become clutch.
The three homers Wednesday gave the Yankees 64 for the season, surpassing the Rangers for the most in the majors. Swisher's homer was his first this season at Yankee Stadium, where he has struggled, hitting .127 (7-for-55).
Just as importantly, the Yankees have been taking advantage when they get runners in scoring position, tacking on runs and keeping pressure on opposing pitchers. Their average with RISP is up to a nearly respectable .265.
The eighth inning was a prefect example of the Yankees' new-found relentlessness.
The Yankees had a 5-3 lead and Mariano Rivera had finished off the top half of the inning. A win was well within reach. The offense, however, put the game out of reach.
With one out, Alex Rodriguez walked, Hideki Matsui singled and Swisher walked to load the bases. Cano and Melky each followed with RBI singles before Kevin Cash lifted a sacrifice fly to center to make it 8-3.
Derek Jeter then ripped two-run double and scored on Johnny Damon's single before Mark Teixeira ended the inning with a topper back to the mound. Just like that, game over.
But the thing that has been overlooked during this winning streak has been the starting pitching.
Hughes was much better Wednesday than he had been recently. His fastball was hitting 94 and lively, and his breaking pitches were sharp. He was efficient in that 57 of 89 pitches for strikes and he walked just one. He might have been able to go one more inning, but after giving up homers in both the fourth and fifth, it was clear he was starting to tire and all the strikeouts were taking a toll.
Hughes actually looked like a major league pitcher again. Even after he surrendered the homers, he did not rattle and continued to attack hitters. He still has work to do -- he has allowed four homers in his last two starts -- but he has improved over the course of his last three starts and has given the Yankees the option of giving Chien-Ming Wang one more rehab start, if they so desire.
He's also given the Yankees an option once Wang returns. I would not rule out moving Hughes to the bullpen instead of sending him back to Scranton, especially if Jose Veras continues to struggle to throw strikes.
There was a time when pitchers had to prove themselves out of the bullpen when they were called up. Hughes doesn't have anything left to prove at Scranton. Maybe the best thing for him is to continue to learn in the majors as a long man and spot starter. This would also have the benefit of allowing the Yankees to make Alfredo Aceves (two more scoreless innings Wednesday) the sixth- and/or seventh-inning guy.
Still, Hughes' start was part of a larger trend for the Yankees. During this streak, the starters are 5-0 with a 3.21 ERA and 41 strikeouts. They've allowed 46 hits and 25 walks in 50-1/3 inning, averaging nearly 6-1/3 innings a start. Five of the eight starts qualified as quality starts.
The Yankees starters entered the night with a 5.13 ERA on the season, which ranks 22nd, up from 24th a short time ago. The recent stretch has also benefited the bullpen, which has been shaky, but improving, with a 5.37 ERA that has climbed to 25th.
Brian Bruney was impressive in his return Tuesday and he should be able to solidify this unit and, I hope, make it at least respectable.
Everything is clicking for the Yankees. Now they have to sustain it. Let's see if they stretch this win streak to nine.
Runners In Scoring Position
Thursday vs. Orioles, 7:05 p.m., YES
Adam Eaton (2-4, 7.93) vs. Joba Chamberlain (2-1, 3.76)
Joba Chamberlain seemed to have found a formula to get through the first inning in his last start. He needs to replicate that as he seek to continue his development as a legitimate major league starter. His ERA is strong. Now he just needs to pick up some W's.
The Yankees' offense should continue to roll against Eaton, for whom a good start is any in which he hold the opponents to fewer than five runs.